Seven high school students and three teachers from Sri Mayapur International School left early last Friday morning on an exciting educational excursion to visit the Bhaktivedanta Research Library in Kolkata. This trip, which was an award to our senior girls who have been outstanding in their personal sadhana this term, turned out to be an amazing preaching experience which left all who participated in it feeling more spiritually exhilarated than they had ever imagined.
The following is a diary account of the trip by students and teachers.
Friday, 16th September
6:00 AM ISKCON Mayapur Service gate
Amidst an early morning monsoon mist, with bright smiles all around, we piled ourselves and our luggage onto two flatbed rickshaws and happily made our way to Hulor Ghat where we would cross the Jalangi River by boat.
6:30 AM On the other side of the Jalangi, we had a rather interesting time trying to save time and money by squeezing all ten of us into one motor rickshaw. (Nothing strange for India, but a little too cozy for our group). Luckily, four other passengers came and filled the second rickshaw so we could all depart together in relative comfort to the Krishnanagar railway station.
Now's when the real fun began: Prabhupada priya Mataji - our Bhakti Shastri teacher, who had brought along a bag full of small books - gave us each five books and after a ten second coaching session, sent us off in pairs to distribute books in the station. We didn't think we could do it. To be honest, we don't know how we did do it, but somehow or other, the books just started flying out and the donations started flying in. For most of us, it was our first time distributing Prabupada's books, and we got so totally caught up in it that it was actually a disappointment when the train came on time!
8:15 AM After settling into our seats on the train, we took out our packed breakfasts and shared them around until everyone was satisfied. Then we began to mentally prepare ourselves for two uneventful hours on the train. That is, until our teacher said, "Hey, just look at all these people. Don't they look bored? Don't you think they would love to have an interesting book to read?" That was enough for us. We had already gotten our first taste of book distribution in the station and we were ready for more. So four of us started walking up and down the train carriages distributing books, and we found it was even better than the station. Jahnudvipa prabhu, a respected long-time Mayapur resident, just happened to be sitting in the seat behind us on the way to Kolkata. He expressed how impressed he was by the students' enthusiasm to distribute books. "When I see our young people distributing Srila Prabhupada's books, I am struck with awe, and I want to fall at their feet. It is so encouraging to see them taking up the banner of preaching in this way. All glories to their teachers for inspiring them to take up this most important service." The two hour journey passed like 15 minutes. How time flies when you're having fun!
10:20 AM Arrival in Kolkata
Sealdah station whizzed and whirled around us like a blur of people- buzzing with sound. We felt like country bumpkins in a big bustling city, enthusiastic but a little overwhelmed. Just then, Krishna sent us a guardian angel in the form of Avadhuta prabhu, Anuradha Mataji's godbrother, who knew we were coming and had come to meet us at the station. He led us to the taxi stand, arranged our taxis and accompanied us to Laxmi Narayana Temple where we took a quick darshan and a very spicy lunch.
12:00 PM After promising ourselves to never eat there again, we flagged down taxis and went to Gita Bhavan - the guest house of the Bhaktivedanta Research Library, where we were received by Janakaraja prabhu with warm hospitality. It was a relief to finally get free from our bags! We were delighted by the rooms which were immaculately clean and well-furnished, with AC and hot water showers - luxuries for us. After a quick freshening up, we went to the Bhaktivedanta Research Library where the head librarian, Acyuta prabhu, and his crew gave a wonderful presentation of the library which completely changed our perspective on books in general and gave us a special appreciation for the holy books given to us by our Vaisnava Acaryas.
They showed us samples of books from different historical epochs - beginning from texts which had been hand-written on tala leaves using herbal dyes, then others written on tree bark which were covered by elaborately etched wooden cases. Next came books that were produced by carving the text on wooden blocks and then printing onto hand-made paper. Seeing these amazing manuscripts gave us an appreciation of the value of the knowledge contained within those pages and the remarkable effort that was put in to producing and preserving them.
After being oriented to the library by Acyuta prabhu, the girls were assigned specific research tasks. They were asked to look up the same sloka in different editions of the Bhagavad-gita, write them down and compare them to Srila Prabhupada's translation for that sloka. They compared 25 different English editions of Bhagavad gita and 15 different editions of Sri Isopanisad. While many of the translations were very similar, some were completely different. Through this exercise, the students realized that not all editions of the scriptures are created equal and while an authorized edition can lead us back to godhead, an unauthorized one can mislead us into impersonalism or even atheism.
4:00 PM Three hours in the library passed by like 15 minutes. When the librarian told us he had to lock up at 4:00, we were heartbroken to have to leave that treasure-house of spiritual wisdom. But we also had places to go….Avadhuta prabhu had arrived to take us to New Market for the inevitable shopping trip. Funny thing was - and you may find this surprising for a group of teenage girls, but it's true - after being so transcendentally exhilarated in the library, we weren't even interested in shopping! I guess we were getting the "higher taste."
5:30 PM We arrived in New Market - a bustling maze of seemingly endless shops. As much as we tried, we just couldn't get into it. Except for Nandarani , that is, who got excited by the wholesale fabric shops. (She wants to start her own devotional fashion boutique.)
6:30 PM We flagged down taxis and headed for our next venue: dinner with Mr. and Mrs Poddar and family - friends of Avadhuta prabhu who are just getting interested in Krishna consciousness. We had no idea what to expect.
Mrs Poddar received us graciously in their beautifully furnished apartment. We were impressed by the grandeur of their home, but what we would never have anticipated is how impressed they became with us. I guess they were surprised that teenagers could be so committed to spiritual life. I mean, to us it's just normal, but for them, our lifestyle of waking up early, going to mangal arati, chanting japa, then going to school all day must have seemed quite extraordinary. They were interested to know what we do in our free time, and when we replied that our favourite activity is to get together and do bhajans, they were speechless.
7:30 PM Prasadam! It had been a long time since that very spicy lunch, and we were hungry. We were so happy when we saw the homemade puchkas - baby puris that you eat with potato subji, green chutney and tamarind water - hundreds of them. We ate and ate puchkas until we couldn't eat any more. Mrs. Poddar really wanted to please us, and she did.
8:30 PM We were just about to leave when Mr. Poddar expressed an interest in us doing a Krishna conscious New Year's program for an audience of about 100 people - his businessmen friends and their families. They offered to pay for transportation and accommodation for 15 of us to come and put on a whole cultural program including bhajans, philosophy, dramas, dance, art….whatever we can get together. He would rent a hall for the occasion. What an amazing preaching opportunity! We were honoured by the offer, and thrilled at the thought of following in the footsteps of Srila Prabhupada, inspiring others to become devotees of Krishna.
9:30 PM Back to Gita Bhavan. A shower and a bed were just what we needed, but the day had been so blissful -full of new experiences, deep realizations and exciting prospects for the future - that although our bodies were tired, we were too exhilarated to sleep. Eventually, we all settled down and drifted off to dreamland wondering what wonderful adventures Krishna had arranged for us tomorrow.
Saturday, 17 September
1:00 AM We woke up shivering in our sheets as someone had gotten overly excited about the AC and turned the room into a polar iceberg. Too much of a good thing…
6:00 AM Wake up call came a little too early for some of us, and we were anything but fast getting ourselves ready, but still we managed to chant some rounds while the teacher went out to buy fresh fruits to eat with our sandwiches and moori. Then we had a breakfast picnic in our room. (Don't worry - Bhava and Padmaja, our cleaning crew, under the stern guidance of Bhakti Lata Mataji, made sure the room was immaculate afterwards!)
9:00 AM As we finished our breakfast, one by one we slipped off to the Library to again immerse ourselves in the ocean of nectar left to us by the Vaisnavas in the form of their books. This time we were free to roam and choose whatever we wanted, and there was something for everyone. Prabhupada priya Mataji comments, "The Bhaktivedanta Research Library made a big impression on the girls. After just three hours in the library, one student, Gourangi dasi, proclaimed, "Mataji, I'm never going to read another karmi book again. I just want to read spiritual books!" And it wasn't just sentiment. A few days after we returned to Mayapur, her mother, Adi Devi Mataji, approached me in the temple and said, "I don't know what you did to my daughter on that trip, but when she got home, she got rid of all her karmi books, dragged me down to the temple and made me buy the whole set of Srimad Bhagavatams for her." Needless to say, I was beaming.
We packed up our luggage and two very plush private cars came to pick us up to bring us to the home of Mr and Mrs Rajgaria, where we had been invited for lunch. We couldn't believe how they received us! When we arrived at the apartment building, a gentleman, whom we later realized was Mr. Rajgaria himself, opened the doors of the car to let us out (it was like something from an old-fashioned movie!) and directed us to the lift. His wife, Kiran, whom we were also meeting for the first time, gave each of us hugs like we were old friends, seated us in her beautiful living room and served us iced rose-water drinks.
Kiran wanted to know everything about us, and after last night's experience, we understood this to be another preaching opportunity. We enthusiastically told her about our devotee lifestyle, our spiritual education and even our Krishna conscious leisure activities like singing bhajans, swimming in the Ganga, attending temple programs, etc. We asked if she would like to hear one of our bhajans and she was delighted. We all chanted together blissfully for about half an hour until it was time for lunch.
12:30 PM And oh, what a lunch it was! Idlis with sambhar and delicious fresh coconut chutney, naan breads stuffed with a cheesy potato filling, mouth-watering dhokla chaat, chick pea subji, potato and tomato subji, crispy dosas, and everything was spiced just perfectly. We ate until we couldn't eat anymore (although we wanted to) and then we made another bhajan. This time Nandarani led, and it was so ecstatic that Anuradha Mataji stood up, took Kiranji mataji by the hand and started dancing. Then we all stood up joined in the dancing. Even Kiranji's sister-in-laws, who were very grave and resistant in the beginning, started smiling and singing along. Kiranji's living room became like the spiritual world!
2:30 PM After all that dancing, we found some room for dessert, and Kiranji brought out the most delicious home-made kulfi. Just then, Mrs. Poddar showed up with Avadhuta prabhu to give us some gifts and say good-bye to us. We presented them with a few of Srila Prabhupada's books that we had brought and promised we would see them again in January.
3:30 PM Some of the girls wanted to visit a shopping centre and bookshop for a few things, so Kiranji arranged her drivers to bring us there in their private cars. One driver even stayed there waiting for us while we shopped just so we wouldn't have to carry our bags around. It was so nice. We got an amazing realization that if we just try to preach and spread Krishna consciousness, Krishna will make arrangements for all of our needs.
4:30 PM We never thought Kolkata would be so much fun, and it was with bittersweet feelings that we headed toward Sealdah station to go home. We wanted to stay longer, but at the same time, we were missing Mayapur.
5:00 PM When we sat down at the station, we realized how exhausted we were. Then Prabhupada priya Mataji got our attention, "Hey, girls, we can't take these books back to Mayapur!" We didn't know if we could even stand up what to speak of distribute books. Finally, Vrinda and Padmaja volunteered to give it a try. And the magic started all over again!
Vaikuntha Nitai prabhu, who happened to be waiting on the same platform after a day trip to Kolkata on personal business, commented later, "I was standing there in my karmi clothes and when I saw our school girls in their devotional clothes and tilak distributing books in Kolkata, I felt like crying." Some of the girls wondered where Vrinda, who was distributing books like hotcakes, was getting her energy from. Vrinda replied with a blissful smile, "I don't know. It's just coming from nowhere!" Actually, that was another realization we had: that when the soul connects to Krishna through the linking process of devotional service, it's like plugging a lamp into the electrical socket. The energy comes from Krishna.
6:00 PM Vrinda's enthusiasm was contagious, and when we got on the train, Gourangi jumped up to join her. Prabhupada priya Mataji comments, "In 17 years of book distribution, I had never seen anything like it. The girls were coming to me every few minutes to ask for change because they had sold another book. People were searching the train carriages to find Vrinda or Gourangi because they had seen someone with a book and they wanted one, too. Some people were buying three or four different books, and then, when there were only a few books left, people were fighting over them. I was kicking myself for not bringing more. I was so happy to see the people reading Prabhupada's books on the train, and even happier for seeing these young girls getting a real taste for distributing them."
9:30 PM All was quiet when our Tata Sumo pulled into ISKCON Mayapur. It had been an action-packed two days. It had been two days that changed our lives forever. Where once we had considered ourselves simple devotee girls from Mayapur, now we are seeing ourselves as preachers. Where once we thought that only gurus and sannyasis could be inspire others in Krishna consciousness, now we have experienced that we too, in our own way, can have a powerful positive influence on the lives of others. In the Bhakti-Shastri class, we learned about Srila Prabhupada's mood and mission, and in this short trip, we practically experienced it. Now we are ready to follow in the footsteps of Srila Prabhupada. Look out world, here we come!